Gym Memberships: Know Your Rights
Happy New Year! I hope you all had a great holiday and best for the new year. If you are like me, you probably ate too much and sat around a lot during the holiday. Maybe you were called “rolly polly” as well (the technical term is actually “skinny fat” but I digress). Regardless of the reason, many people join gyms this time of the year. Word to the wise though- there’s a reason why Provinces and States have legislation specifically dealing with your legal rights as it pertains to gym memberships. Although many gyms are law abiding corporate citizens, this industry also has unscrupulous owners and aggressive sales practices which result in uneducated consumers being taken advantage of. Thus, it is important to know your rights before you join a gym.
Gym membership laws differ from Province to Province or State to State. They are typically administered by the same bureaucracy that deals with consumer protection. This post is non-jurisdiction specific, except where indicated, and is intended to be merely a general over-view on factors to look out for when joining a gym (please contact your local government for particular details):
1. Read the Contract and think it over
By law, a verbal contract can be legally enforceable. However, in most jurisdictions, gyms must provide a written contract in order for the contract of services to be legally binding. I would suggest that anyone thinking of joining a gym ask for a copy of the contract and really read it over- even if it means sitting in the gym for up to 60 minutes and reading it over clause by clause.
In the event that you sign a contract without reading it over and change your mind, most jurisdictions have “cooling off” periods where you can change your mind without any legal consequences to you. Cooling off periods vary from 2 days after the written contract is received to 10 days (in Ontario, it is 10 days after the later of when the contract is received or when all the services are made available). Thus, please make sure you read the law on gym memberships before you entertain joining a gym.
2. Beware the Length and Renewal
Some jurisdiction limit the length of a gym membership contract. In Ontario, no gym membership contract can be more than 1 year. If you encounter a perpetual or never-ending contract in duration- run don’t walk away since it is either illegal or a gym may not be morally upstanding (think about it- how many contracts are perpetual in length? Even marriage contracts can be broken and, in theory anyways, they are supposed to be for life).
In Ontario, a gym has specific obligations before it can renew your membership. Specifically, at least 30 days before the expiration of the 1 year contract, but not more than 90 days before the expiration, the gym must provide written notice of the renewal of the contract including the location of the gym. Before the renewal date, the member can elect to cancel the membership. Please do this in writing and keep a copy of the termination notice.
In jurisdictions where this is not a specific regulation requiring written notice of renewal, please read the contract. In most contracts of this type, there are typically two options: (i) the member can renew before a specific date from the expiration of the membership (i.e. positive action is required); or (ii) the contract is automatically renewed if the member says nothing (i.e. no action is required). It is very important to keep these dates in mind and make sure you elect to renew or not to renew in writing and deliver it in person or by registered mail.
Some jurisdiction require the gym to offer installment payments and others do not. I would avoid any gym that requires complete payment upfront unless there is significant discounts offered (i.e. you get 3 months free if you prepay for a year) but, even if this discount is present, I would avoid these types of contracts since you do not know if you will use the gym for the entire year.
Most gyms require automatic debiting from a bank account or credit card. I hate this practice- gyms “accidentally” continue to charge you after you have left for months on end and the law on automatic debiting has not addressed this issue at this point in time. If at all possible, pay by post-dated cheques. The gyms only have a finite number of cheques to cash.
Whatever you do, do not cancel the credit card or bank account if the gym continues to debit the account- the gym will send your account to a collection agency (even if you terminated legally). If you have a good written record that you terminated the contract, you can show the bank and/or credit card that the debit is unwarranted or, if the account is “accidentally” sent to collections, you can inform the collection agency that the debt does not exists and, if you have proof of this claim, the collection agency has to stop calling you.
Here’s the bad news- outside of the cooling period, it is usually very difficult to cancel a gym membership during the term of the contract assuming that a sufficient level of service is being offered. If you don’t want to be tied in for a long period of time, look for a gym that offers month to month options.
In some jurisdictions, you can cancel a gym membership if you can prove you have moved within a certain distance away from the gym (but watch for a clause in the contract that allows the gym to transfer the contract to a gym closer to you if the gym is a chain).
Here’s the key to terminating a gym membership, whether if you have rights to do so during the term of the agreement or upon renewal date, give notice in writing and make sure you have a clear record of delivery (either record the time and person who accepted the notice if you hand-deliver it or register mail it) and keep a copy. Gyms can get “forgetful” about termination notices. Make sure you have clear records to contradict them and confirm that they will no longer debit your bank account or credit card (as a helpful suggestion, have them remove your name from their call list too).
The above are some general factors to look out for. I would also read Ellen Roseman’s blog on gym memberships (the comments in the post are quite educational) as well. Good luck.